Bright Ideas

An old saying warns against re-inventing the light bulb. But a reinvented bulb is casting light on a controversy about how we manage our dwindling resources.

The face of the issue is Dr. David Suzuki, Top Ten Greatest Canadian and science columnist for He’s literally the poster boy for, pushing “environmentally friendly” compact florescent bulbs, which last longer and use less electricity than the incandescent that’s lit up our lives since Thomas Edison’s day.

It’s been a hard sell: compact florescent, or CFL bulbs are expensive, for one thing, plus their “green” status is questionable in the minds of many. CFLs contain tiny amounts of mercury; thus, when they finally wear out, safe disposal is an issue. And what if you break a bulb, releasing a trace amount of mercury into your household?

To his credit, Suzuki addresses the mercury issue. He notes that the biggest source of atmospheric mercury is coal-fired power plants; hence, turning on a CFL bulb helps to reduce mercury by reducing overall consumption from those plants.

Still, telling folks that stores “should be required to take back old CFLs” and in case of breakage, to “follow cleanup safety guidelines recommended by Environment Canada” has not put everyone at ease.

Then there’s the manufacturing and packaging. CFL bulbs require significant amounts of energy to create; plus, they tend to come in thick, plastic packages, which has a financial and an environmental cost.

Convincing consumers to make the switch in has a cost too. Clearly, if it means a reduction in the overall amount of electricity used, it’s worth it in the long run. Still, it looks oxymoronic to see Dr. Suzuki’s face on a billboard, lit 24 hours a day, encouraging reduced consumption.

Many people don’t like the light from CFL bulbs: it doesn’t have the warm glow of an old-fashioned bulb. And now there’s a concern that CFLs may expose householders to UV radiation.

For all its controversy, the CFL issue may turn out to be moot. While the incandescent bulb is on its way to the trash heap of history, its replacement may turn out to be mercury-free LED lighting. It would be ironic if CFLs should join incandescent bulbs in the waste stream before their vaunted lifespans are even up.

I have to admit it: I didn’t warm to CFLs the way many tree-huggers did. I’ve installed a couple, grudgingly, because the math adds up. I don’t like the light, I didn’t like being cajoled, and I’d rather make my own informed choices.

But that’s the real issue here, right? Informed choice. It’s not about what kind of bulb to buy. It’s the fact that something as simple as turning on (or off) a light bulb has a profound impact when multiplied by millions. Hence, the role of the individual consumer is critical, and making smart decisions makes a big difference.

And so I ask myself: do I turn off the lights and devices I’m not using? Do I count the real costs, in dollars and in kilowatts, of the lifestyle I lead?

Are we making decisions that reflect that consideration sensibly?

If not, isn’t it about time a little light bulb went on over our heads?

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